Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Why All Disciples Are Like Levites

This post heading might sound bizarre but hear me out on this one.

First, let's begin with Jesus' words:
Luke 14:26-27: Jesus explains what itmeans to be a disciple: "“If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.
Jesus' words are hard to hear, but easy to understand: disciples must learn to love Christ above all else.

But there might be a deeper level of meaning here.
Jesus' words that one must reject everything--kin and all else--in order to become his disciple evokes the description of the Levites in the Old Testament.

What was it that the Levites had to do in order to obtain the priesthood?

The story is found in Exodus 32. There, while Moses is up on Mt. Sinai the Israelites do the unthinkable--they worship a golden calf. We all know what happens next. Moses comes down the mountain and asks, "Who is on the Lord’s side?" (Exod 32:26). The Levites respond. At Moses' direction they go through the camp and slay all the idolatrous Israelites. Indeed, the Levites were not to spare anyone. While it is mere speculation, one could well imagine that some of those they had to kill were people they knew.

In fact, this may be implied in what Moses says after they have accomplished their mission:
"And Moses said, 'Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, that he may bestow a blessing upon you this day'" (Exod 32:29)

Later, when Moses blesses the tribe of Levi in Deuteronomy 33 we read something similar. The following is taken from the Septuagint's version of Deuteronomy 33:9: “The one saying to his father and his mother ‘I have not seen you’ and his brother he did not acknowledge and his children he disowned.”

Moreover, unlike the other tribes, Levi is given no land--no "inheritance"--in the Promised Land. The reasoning is given in Deuteronomy 10:9:
"Therefore Levi has no portion or inheritance with his brothers; the Lord is his inheritance, as the Lord your God said to him" (cf. also Num 18:20, 23; Deut 18:1-2; Neh 13:10).

The Levites are priests but only at the cost of kin and property.

Indeed, the similarities are striking. The Levites have had to renounce ("he did not acknowledge") their own family members--father, mother, brother. Likewise, Jesus explains that his disciples must renounce "father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters".

His disciples therefore are called to be spiritual priests. In this his disciples fulfill the original vocation of Israel, described in Exodus 19:6: "you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." However, because of their idolatry the priesthood went only to the Levites.

1 Peter explains that this vocation now belongs to believers: " But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1 Pet 2:9).

Believers are called to be priests. But what does it mean to be a priest? Hebrews 8:3 helps here: "every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices." A priest offers sacrifices.

If believers are called to be priests they are called to offer a sacrifice--themselves.

Romans 12 explains: "I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship" (Rom 12:1).

Believers fulfill their vocation through offering up their own lives as sacrifices--especially by suffering. 1 Peter goes on to make this clear:
Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same thought, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer by human passions but by the will of God... 12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed" (1 Pet 4:1-2, 12-13).

A few days ago I wrote a post on the Church as the Heavenly Temple. I cited Peter's words about the Church as a spiritual temple. I believe this post is related to that theme. Discipleship means priesthood--it means self-sacrifice.

Or in Jesus' words: "Take up your cross and follow me."

(For more on the priestly themes of Luke 14 see Cripsin H. T. Fletcher-Louis, “Jesus Inspects His Priestly War Party (Luke 14:25-33),” in The Old Testament in the New Testament. Essays in Honour of J.L. North (ed. S. Moyise; JSNTS 189; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 126-143.)

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Pentecost's "Tongues of Fire" and the Heavenly Temple

Tomorrow is Pentecost. Of course, we all know the story from the book of Acts which relates how the Spirit came and descended upon the apostles in the form of those “tongues of fire”. But I’ve always wondered―why tongues of fire?

Of course, one thing Pentecost does is reverse the scattering that took place at Babel where languages--or "tongues"--were confused. But recently I discovered another possible background. Let me explain.

In Jesus’ day “messianic” hopes went hand-in-hand with the idea of a restoration of the tribes of Israel scattered to the nations. This is evident from numerous texts and has been observed by a plethora of scholars. In fact, the idea that God would one day restore Israel from exile is even found on the lips of Moses at the end of Deuteronomy. After first warning Israel that falling away from the covenant would mean judgment and exile, he goes on to say:
“And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, 2 and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you this day, with all your heart and with all your soul; 3 then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes, and have compassion upon you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you (Deut 30:1-3).
E. P. Sanders has even gone so far as to say: “In general terms it may be said that ‘Jewish eschatology’ and ‘the restoration of Israel’ are almost synonymous” (Jesus and Judaism, 97). In addition, this eschatological ingathering would include not only the Israelites but the Gentiles as well.[1]

So there would be an ingathering of Israel from the nations. But where would they be gathered to? The answer was also clear to ancient Jews: the Temple. This is also evident in many texts. See for example Isaiah 2, which offers a programmatic vision for the restoration:
“It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, 3 and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Isa 2:2-3).
Much more could be said (believe me, my dissertation covers a lot of this ground!). In fact, the book of Acts, and especially the account of Pentecost is loaded with texts relating the fulfillment of these restoration expectations. I’ve already discussed that here.

In fact, Jesus himself is described in the New Testament as the New Temple (e.g., John 2:19-21; cf. Mark 15:38). The ingathering thus takes place as we come to Jesus.

So how do the tongues of fire fit in here?

Well, one of the most prominent passages relating a vision of tongues of fire is found in 1 Enoch 14. There Enoch is led into the heavenly temple. Here is how it is described:
“…and in the vision, the winders were causing me to fly and rushing me high up into heaven. And I kept coming (into heaven) until I approached a wall which was built of white marble and surrounded by tongues of fire; and it began to frighten me. And I came into the tongues of fire and drew near to a great house which was built of white marble, and the inner wall(s) were like mosaics…And I entered into the house… And behold there was an opening before me (and) a second house which is greater than the former and everything was built with tongues of fire. And in every respect it excelled the other)―in glory and great honor―to the extent that it is impossible for me to recount to you concerning its glory and greatness… And I observed and saw inside a lofty throne―its appearance was like crystal and its wheels like the shining sun; and I heard the voice of the cheribum; and from beneath the throne were issuing streams of flaming fire. It was difficult to look at it. And the Great Glory was sitting upon it…” (1 Enoch 14:8ff).
The heavenly house is almost certainly meant to be understood as the heavenly temple. Language such as “I drew near” and the image of God’s throne were closely associated with Israel’s worship of God in the Temple (cf. Ps 11:4).

The key here is that the heavenly temple is characterized with tongues of fire.

Much more could be said about 1 Enoch, but for the simplicity of this post let’s move back to Acts 2. That the Church is the temple of God is attested elsewhere in the New Testament. Paul explicitly calls the Church the temple in 1 Corinthians 3:16: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” The idea is also found in Ephesians 2:21, which describes the Church united to Christ growing into a “holy temple”. In fact, for a great treatment of dozens of other passages relating the Temple to the Church see G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (New Studies in Biblical Theology 17; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004).

Given the prominence of the tongues of fire in the vision of the heavenly Temple in 1 Enoch―a book well-known to the early Jewish believers and even cited in the book of Jude―it seems to me that the tongues of fire in Acts may be read in terms of New Temple imagery. It would seem hard to believe the early readers of Luke would not have made the connection. Thus, Acts 2 describes how the ingathering to the heavenly Temple would be realized through the Church’s ministry. By uniting oneself to the Church one was gaining access to the heavenly temple. The Church therefore is not merely an earthly phenemona―it is heavenly.

Important support for such a reading may be found in Revelation 1-3 where one encounters a vision of Jesus in the heavenly temple, surrounded by seven lampstands, each with seven “torches” burning. We are told that “the seven lampstands are the seven churches” (Rev. 1:20). Many have also seen the seven torches as in image of the Spirit [cf. Zech 4:10; Beale, The Book of Revelation (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 189]. Warning the churches not to fall away, Christ warns those who will not hear him that he will “remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent (Rev 2:5). The idea seems to be clear. Somehow the churches have a presence—a lampstand—in the heavenly temple. If they do not repent, they will be removed.

The heavenly dimension of the Church’s existence is even more clear in Hebrews 12.

“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel” (Heb 12:22-24).
Note the language―not you will come to "innumerable angels...the assembly...spirits of just men made perfect...and to Jesus", but you have come. By the way, the word for "assembly" in Greek here is ekklÄ“sia--"Church". The author says, "you have come to the Church" of those enrolled in heaven.

The tongues of fire in Acts 2 therefore seem to evoke 1 Enoch and teach us that the ingathering is taking place at the heavenly temple through the Church’s ministry.

[1] Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, 289-98; Wright, New Testament and the People of God, 299-338; Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 393-96. Especially of note is the recent treatment by Michael F. Bird, Jesus and the Origins of the Gentile Mission (Library of Historical Jesus Studies 331; New York: T&T Clark, 2007), 26-29, which offers an extensive examination of the presence of such hopes in ancient Judaism. Bird cites a number of texts where the restoration of Israel is linked with the idea of the salvation of the Gentiles either en masse (cf. Isa 11:6-10; 42:1-12; 49:6; 66:23; Zeph 2:11; Zech 2:15; Tob 14: 6-7; T. Jud 24:6; 25:5; T. Sim 7:2; T. Dan. 5:11; T. Ash. 7:3; T. Zeb. 9:8; T. Benj. 10:5; 2 Bar 68:5; Sib. Or. 5:493-500) or as merely a remnant (cf. Jub. 2:28; T. Naph. 8:2-3; Amidah 13; 4 Ezra 3:36; 2 Bar 42:5; 72:2-6; also cf. t. Sanh. 13:2; T. Naph. 8:3-4), acknowledging and praising the God of Israel (cf. Dan 3:28-29; 4:1-37; 6:26-28; Pss. 66:1-12; 22:27-28; 46:10; 96:7-10; 117:1-2; Ezek 39:7; 2 Macc 2:28; T. Jud 25:5; Bel. 41-42; Ep. Arist 177, 187-294; Jos. And As. 15:7-8) and accepting the Law of God (cf. Philo, Vit. Mos 2:36, 43-44; Sib Or 5:264-66; 2 En. 33:9; 48:6-9). A number of texts attest to the idea of Israel’s conquering of the Gentiles (cf. Num 24:7, 17 LXX; Pss 2:8-11; 10:15-16; 22:28; 46:6-11; 47:1-9; 48:1-8; Isa 49:23; 54:3; Dan 2:44; 7:14, 27; Obad 21; Zech 14:9; Amos 9:11-12; Zeph 2:1-3; 3:14-20; Mic 5:9; 7:16-17; 1 Macc 4:11; Bar 4:25, 31-35; 4 Ezra 6:26; Jub 26:23; Sib Or 3:49; T. Jud. 24:6; T. Zeb 9:8; 1 En. 48:7-10; T. Mos 10:1-7; Pss. Sol. 17:1-34; Philo, Praem. Poen. 79, 93-97; Vit. Mos. 1.290; Tg. Isa. 30:18-33; 1 QM 1:4-5; 6.5-6; 12:10-16; 19:3-8; Josephus, B. J. 6.312). However, Bird importantly also observes that in many texts the expectation of the destruction of the Gentile nations appears alongside hope for their (partial) salvation (cf. e.g., Isa 66:15-21; 2 Bar 72:2-6; t. Sanh. 13:2; Pss. Sol. 17:22-25, 30-31). Thus, Bird rightly concludes, “views of defeat and admission of the Gentiles were not necessarily mutually exclusive."

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Good Samaritans of the Old Testament

We all know that the Jews and Samaritans in Jesus' day harbored serious animosity towards each other. And so the story of the Good Samaritan is often rightly understood as teaching the importance of showing charity to all, regardless of ethnicity, religion, etc.

But--like just about everything else in the Gospels--there's likely an Old Testament episode lying in the background.

We all know the story of the Good Samaritan, but here I want to talk about some specific aspects of the story, so let's just review. Jesus begins, of course, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead" (Luke 10:30). 

After a Levite and a priest come along, passing by on the opposite side, a Samaritan comes along.
Luke 10:25-37: "But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, 34 and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’"
Jesus then asks, "Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?" (Luke 10:36). When the answer comes, “The one who showed mercy on him,” Jesus responds, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37-38).

Okay--we all know that the point Jesus is making a point about the need to put nationalist tendencies aside. But is it possible that Jesus is drawing the imagery here from on an Old Testament episode?

2 Chronicles 28 relates a story about a battle between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. The northern kingdom overpowers those from the south and take captive the people from Judah, including two hundred thousand women and children. However, after the prophet warns the northern tribes that they have sinned in taking captive those from Judea, certain chief men from the northern tribes take pity on the prisoneers (2 Chron. 28:8-11). They stand up to those coming back from the battle, condemning their actions. What happens sounds very familiar.
2 Chron. 28:15: And the men who have been mentioned by name rose and took the captives, and with the spoil they clothed all that were naked among them; they clothed them, gave them sandals, provided them with food and drink, and anointed them; and carrying all the feeble among them on asses, they brought them to their kinsfolk at Jericho, the city of palm trees. Then they returned to Samaria.
It seems likely that the story of the Good Samaritan is drawing on this episode. There we read about northern Israelites showing compassion on those from Judah. They attend to their needs, place them on their animals, and take them to a place where they can be left to be cared for. In other words, they do what the Good Samaritan does in the story in Luke's Gospel.

Once again, it would seem, Jesus' teaching seems to flow from Israel's story. In fact, the story would seem to fit into Jesus' larger program in Luke's Gospel--the restoration of the Davidic Kingdom and specifically, his concern for Judah and Israel. Interestingly, this account from 2 Chronicles is followed by Hezekiah's famous Passover. For more on the Davidic imagery in Luke's Gospel read this.

TIME Magazine: "'Liberal' Catholicism Dead"

"Are you a liberal or a conservative Catholic?"

I absolutely hate that question. What it tries to do is politicize the Church. And when people ask me that question I tell them exactly that and then say, "I'm just Catholic." I believe what the Catholic Church teaches.

Of course, that's not good enough for some people, who then conclude: "Oh, so you're a conservative."

Well, let me tell you, I like the Mass said in English--I love it that Vatican II did that. I also love that the Council expanded reformed the Liturgy of the Word and lectionary cycle--it's way better than what we had before (far less Scripture was read!). Indeed, I could go on and on about things I love about Vatican II.

Even more, I have nothing bad to say about Vatican II!

Here's the way it is: I'm not Catholic simply because I was born Catholic. While I was raised a Catholic, I continue to be Catholic because I choose to be. At the same time, I am not Catholic because I suppose that I am the best arbiter of truth and because, in my great wisdom, I have decided that the Catholic Church comes closest to what I think is right. I don't that's the kind of system Christ established. I think he left his teaching authority with the apostles, especially Peter, and I think we have to submit ourselves to that authority, which they expected would belong to their successors. This was clearly what Paul, and early figures like Clement and Ignatius thought!

I want to agree with the Church, not convince the Church that it needs to agree with me.

Nonetheless, I still get asked: "Are you a liberal or conservative Catholic?" And I just keep responding: "I'm just Catholic."

Of course, there are Catholics who identify themselves as conservative or liberal. Some will say that "Catholic" isn't good enough for them. They've decided the Church doesn't fit well with their own theology. They want something different: "let's repeal Vatican II, it did too much" ("conservatives") or "let's have a Vatican III, it didn't change enough".

While most of those who really believe Vatican II was evil have simply stepped out of the Church and into sects like the Society of Pius X, those who think the Church needs to change its teachings on things like abortion have not. A clear example of such a person is Rudy Guiliani, who has actively protested the Church's teaching on abortion while insisting that he's still a Catholic.

In fact, those my age vividly recall those from older generations--especially those who grew up in the sixties--teaching us things slogans like, "We are Church," a phrase understood as a rallying cry against the teachings of Church. I specifically recall having a Confirmation teacher who liked to take issue with this or that belief, explaining that, for example, things like "hell" were not really something we needed to accept as Catholics. "Hmmm," I remember thinking, "If he doesn't believe what Catholics believe, why would he still want to be Catholic? Why not join a church he thinks is correct."

Of course, such Catholics as my confirmation teacher would quickly identify themselves as "progressive" or "liberal" Catholics. Well, all I have to say is that not too many people from my generation have got "hip" to their ideas. We recognize that many of them have devoted their lives to serving the Church--many of them were our religious education teachers--and we love them. But those such movements are clearly fading. I know it. Others my age know it. It's just a fact.

In fact, this is just a demographic fact. Let's face it, those who want to change the Church's teaching on birth control and abortion are just not reproducing themselves as fast as those who accept it. And, frankly, looking at the "progress" they've made in the last forty years doesn't really inspire hope in younger people that the "cause" to change the Church in such ways is really going to take off.

Now, all I've been saying is kind of "insider" analysis. What blew me away was to see TIME Magazine do a story on this. Check it out:

He may not have been thinking about it at the time, but Pope Benedict, in the course of his recent U.S. visit may have dealt a knockout blow to the liberal American Catholicism that has challenged Rome since the early 1960s....

The liberal rebellion in American Catholicism has dogged Benedict and his predecessors since the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65. "Vatican II," which overhauled much of Catholic teaching and ritual, had a revolutionary impact on the Church as a whole. It enabled people to hear the Mass in their own languages; embraced the principle of religious freedom; rejected anti-semitism; and permitted Catholic scholars to grapple with modernity.

But Vatican II meant even more to a generation of devout but restless young people in the U.S. rather than a course correction, Terrence Tilley, now head of the Fordham University's theology department, wrote recently, his generation perceived "an interruption of history, a divine typhoon that left only the keel and structure of the church unchanged." They discerned in the Council a call to greater church democracy, and an assertion of individual conscience that could stand up to the authority of even the Pope. So, they battled the Vatican's birth-control ban, its rejection of female priests and insistence on celibacy, and its authoritarianism.

Rome pushed back, and the ensuing struggle defined a movement, whose icons included peace activist Fr. Daniel Berrigan, feminist Sister Joan Chittister, and sociologist/author Fr. Andrew Greeley. Its perspectives were covered in The National Catholic Reporter, Commonweal and America. Martin Sheen held down Hollywood, and the movement even boasted its own cheesy singing act: the St. Louis Jesuits. The reformers' premier membership organization was Call to Action, but their influence was felt at the highest reaches of the American Church, as sympathetic American bishops passed left-leaning statements on nuclear weapons and economic justice. Remarks Tilley, "For a couple of generations, progressivism was an [important] way to be Catholic."

Then he adds, "But I think the end of an era is here."

After citing some people who, in essence, disagree with this analysis. The article goes on to basically say what I have above:

But the familiar progressives-versus-Vatican paradigm seems almost certain to be undone by a looming demographic tsunami. Almost everyone agrees that the "millennial generation," born in 1980 or later, while sharing liberal views on many issues, has no desire to mount the barricades. Notes Reese, "Younger Catholics don't argue with the bishops; they simply do what they want or shop for another church." And Hispanic Catholics, who may be the U.S. majority by 2020, don't see this as their battle. "I'm sure they're happy that the celebration of the Eucharist is in the vernacular," says Tilley, "but they don't have significant issues connected to Vatican II."
You can read the whole thing here. It is odd to me that the article somehow implies that sexual abuse scandal was good for "progressive" Catholics. The abuse clearly happened in all places, not simply in "conservative" or "liberal" strongholds.