Week 7: Nonsenseland (Luke 22-24)

One of the best things about being a dad to a toddler is getting to read childrens’ books. One of the favourites in our household at the moment is Mr Silly from the Mr Men series. For those of you who perhaps opt for something a little more sophisticated in your bedtime reading, let me remind you: Mr Silly lives in a place called Nonsenseland. And in Nonsenseland the grass is blue and the trees are red, the Zebra crossings are spotty. In Nonsenseland you post letters in telephone boxes and make calls from letter boxes. Which is all well and good. Until Mr Silly leaves Nonsenseland and goes to Sensibleland to buy a hole to plant his tree. There he meets the (nauseating) Miss Wise who can’t understand him and his funny ways. The story ends with Mr Silly, holeless, eating spam roly-poly.

We have no time to look at the obvious literary merits of Mr Silly. Another time. Another community of readers! My point is simply this - that with the final chapters of Luke we are entering Nonsenseland. Certainly it was nonsense for the first readers. As we have tried to show in the previous chapters, Jesus is not the Messiah Jews were expecting. The things he did and the stories he told were shocking and surprising. He was not telling a completely new story - the plot and characters were familiar. The ending, however, was certainly not.

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Chapter #17 Josh 1-24: Mission and massacre

This is it! Finally after months of waiting and preparing, the time for conquest of the Promised Land is here. Through the story of Joshua we read of Israel’s gradual domination over the land sworn on oath to their Fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

If reading the book of Joshua isn’t an emotional rollercoaster, you haven’t read it properly. Immersed so deeply as we now are with the story of this wandering people, we cannot help but brim with pride and relief at the capture of the lands they so desperately sought, not to mention the safeguarding of the faith in Yahweh, still new in the ancient world. Yet at the same time, we grieve with the peoples of Ai, Jericho, Hebron, Jarmuth and others. Genocide of this nature reminds us of the shock felt at the Rwandan and Bosnian massacres of the 1990’s. How can God’s people claim this barbaric work was the Lord’s?

Joshua is a book that should offend us to our very core. But we cannot just write it off as nationalistic propaganda, though that is indeed what it is! Our wrestling with the Bible is like Jacob’s wrestling with the Lord at Peniel. We may come away limping, but we will be the better for it.

Week 6: Out with the Old (Luke 19-21)

With Luke 19-21 we reach the final stages of Jesus ministry and are back where we started: Jerusalem, and the temple. It is no accident that Luke begins his gospel with the action happening in Jerusalem and, as we shall see, it is certainly no accident that he takes us back there in these final chapters. The story we have tracked over the past month or so reaches a climax – all the threads that Luke has slowly been weaving start to come together. We will have to wait for the unveiling of the final tapestry but in these chapters all the jigsaw pieces which Luke has been carefully introducing and positioning, fall into place.

Chapter 19 sees the wonderful story of Zaccheaus which in many ways acts as a summary of Jesus’ ministry. In this story we see all of the themes we have tracked throughout Luke’s Jesus story. Again Jesus is turning the world upside down; the status of the despised tax collector is reversed, rich Zaccheaus is made poor, the poor are made rich. We meet again Jesus’ use of Abraham and Son of Man language to challenge the narrow nationalism and legalism of the religious elite. And finally we see Jesus proclaiming salvation outside the cultic obligations of the temple. In 10 short verses, the Zacchaeus story brilliantly sums up Jesus’ ministry.

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Chapter #16 Deut 27-34: All or nothing

After almost four months (including a not-so-brief foray into Job) we have finally come to the end of the Pentateuch! We started with a promise on faith to the family of a wandering nomad and now stand expectantly on the borders of the Promised Land waiting with the Israelite children for the next phase in their historic story.

This last section of Deuteronomy, from chapters 27-34 – the passionate end to Moses’ speech and to his part in the Israelite journey – is, arguably, the best moment in the Old Testament for us to explore what has been a dominant theme from the beginning and will continue right through to the New: Covenant.

A covenant in Old Testament terms is a very particular type of binding agreement. In those days nations would forge covenants with each other to ensure military protection. The most relevant of these is the Suzerain-Vassal treaty in which the Suzerain, the large powerful protector agrees to ally itself to the smaller, weaker Vassal in return for absolute allegiance. Elaborate blessings and curses like that found in chapters 27-28 were common, placing the Vassal at the disposal of the Suzerain’s might, promising countless rewards for absolute allegiance but disastrous afflictions for wavering loyalty. Empires such as Assyria and Babylon would play Suzerain to many of Israel’s neighbours over the course of her history, but as we have read over and over again, Israel was instructed to ally itself to no one else but Yahweh.

Week 5: Being Israel (Luke 11-18)

From the very first verses of Luke 11, it is obvious that the pace of gospel has changed. There is an unmistakable urgency, a ratcheting up of tension. Where before Jesus seemed content to fulfil the nomadic role of an itinerant preacher, going where the wind blew, we are left under no illusion that the Jesus of Luke 11-18 is on a journey with a very definite end. Jerusalem looms large on the horizon, and you get the sense that time is running out.

There is lots and lots of material in these chapters; much to be pondered, much to challenge. I want to pick up just one main theme which runs through these chapters; that theme is Israel.

In these chapters, Jesus is challenging the nature of Israel’s vocation. As we have seen in previous chapters, Jesus has been doing this since the start of his ministry. However these chapters crystallize the challenge. As we shall see by the end of the passage, Jesus is offering the people a stark choice; continue to live as you are and face utter destruction, or repent and follow his way of being Israel.

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Chapter #15 Deut 12-26: Work, Rest and Play

We’re continuing with Moses’ speech to Israel this week, following its middle section through Deuteronomy 12 – 26 which outlines the details of the law, including both new regulations along with a development of some of the ideas we found in the three previous books. Though the speech has moved from a focus on learning from the past to addressing the future, its latent passion is no less compelling.

What we find in these pages is a law that has no regard for the sacred / secular divides of our modern times. Here is a national Constitution that is concerned with worship of Yahweh in the same breath as economic policy, judicial regulations, marriage, war and civil rights. There is no ‘private’ sphere for worship and a ‘public’ sphere for politics; this nation’s life and faith is all part of one whole. It is a masterful work of integration.

In some ways, this integrated national code is more dissimilar from today’s western worldview than it was from its neighbours’ set-up. After all, the gods of the Egyptians bestowed power to their Pharaohs and the local pagan deities demanded sacrifices for economic and national protection. Our a-religious system has long banned God-talk from the corridors of power, eschewing the despotic travesties of political theocracy. What we miss, however, and what Deuteronomy holds out, is a way of living faith in the workplace, the bedroom, the playground and the public square that doesn’t relegate God to some optional extra, but lets him influence every aspect of our lives.

Week 4: Old name, new meaning (Luke 9-10)

This article was first published in 2009.

We re-join Luke at chapter 9, a hugely important chapter in Luke’s Jesus’ story. Luke uses this chapter as a hinge for his gospel, neatly bookending the first part of Jesus’ ministry and signalling a change of focus. After Lk 9 we begin the long journey to Jerusalem and the inexorable sense that the story is moving to its climax. But before we begin this journey, Luke’s Jesus poses the fundamental question: ‘who am I’? What follows is some pretty dense Jewish theology – so hang on to your hats as we enter the murky waters of apocalyptic, inter-testamental literature. Again, I would encourage us to try to suspend our inherited systematic propositions, and listen closely to what Luke might be saying.

In this chapter, Jesus once again characteristically challenges inherited ideas, giving them a new twist, and fusing together previously unfriendly nouns and adjectives to create new meanings. The first one he introduces is Messiah.

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Chapter #14 Deut 1-11: In living memory

And so we come to Deuteronomy, the fifth and final book of the Pentateuch (the Book of the Law, or Torah). Most of Deuteronomy is the speech made by Moses to the people of Israel as they camped on the plains of the Jordan, anticipating the invasion of Canaan.

We’ll look at Deuteronomy in three parts, the first being chapters 1-11. Essentially, this is just one big recap on the previous two months readings! But much more than that, it is a powerful example of how the act of corporate remembering can fashion and fortify a community’s identity.

Moses’ gripping recount is a masterful display of political rhetoric. Highlighting all of Israel’s significant failures he recaps with lucidity the dire consequences metered on the community. From the Golden Calf at Horeb (Sinai) to the Baal of Peor, infidelity is recalled and from the Rebellion at Kadesh Barnea to his own mistake at the Rock at Meribah, disobedience is retold. The punishments suffered by his listeners, their parents and grandparents – still, no doubt, raw in their memory – are emphatically linked to the stubbornness and defiance of this ‘stiff-necked people’.

Imagine yourself an Israelite at this juncture in history. Before you lies the Promised Land towards which your whole life has been geared. Behind you lies the wilderness in which such great suffering met you and your family. You know that your parents were made to turn back into the desert because they didn’t have the guts to face the Anakites. Yet, you don’t feel you have the guts either!

Week 3: A eulogy for love (Luke 7-8)

It was dark. She slipped from shadow to shadow, from house to house, always getting closer. Normally, she skulked, fearful of prying eyes and ears, and hushed disapproving tones. But tonight, her steps were light as they had not been since she was a little girl, flying down hills after her brother. Those days had long since faded into another life. Skipping had turned to plodding, and rushing wind to heavy, stagnant air.

She paused as she reached the main street, her memory whirring to the left and to the right. Which way had he said? If only she was able to ask someone. Impossible. This was not her patch. People here didn’t speak to people like her. Men – who in her experience were blind and mute at the best of times – hustled by, seemingly oblivious. But she knew they noticed – their backs stiffened and steps quickened. No-one in their right mind would want to be seen with her. Too much was at stake – so much that not even a yearly pilgrimage could absolve it. She knew even her breathless presence could smear reputations, as blood soaks wool. But it was the faces of the women which stung the most. Some tried to dress up pity with banal words of meeting and greeting. Other hollow eyes followed her, boring into her past until she saw her own shame reflected. She avoided women.

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Chapter #13 Num 27-36: Scared to choose

My two-year old son is struggling with change. Nappies to potty, cot to bed; things in his life are shifting and he’s not altogether pleased. But change he must, or be stuck in a rut. He joins the great multitude of humans who would resist an important development of some sort and risk ending up far worse off as a result.

This is what happened to the Israelites in early Numbers. Faced with intimidating rumours of the descendents of Anak, they bottle it and refuse to enter the Promised Land. The path to freedom they should have taken appeared too difficult so they opted instead for safety and mediocrity, and ended up with a far worse challenge than the giants of Canaan: to survive the fierce ire of the desert.

We often face choices where the path ahead appears dangerous and threatening. Staying put seems the sensible, even prudent course. But life is rarely static, and what seems like level-headed caution, can often become a snare itself, without our realising it, until it’s too late.