The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

Astrologers, 1 – Monotheists, 0 (readings for Sunday, January 6, 07)

with 3 comments

Holy Family and Magi (Coptic Image Archive)When the Gospel writers penned words like “the Jews,” they couldn’t have meant “the Jews” — as in “Jewish people.” For indeed, almost everyone in their stories is Jewish; Jesus is vigorously so. While some Jews do indeed become the bad guys, other Jews are the bright lights of Jesus’ life (the latter fact strangely overlooked by Christian anti-Semites for twenty centuries). Jesus never criticizes Jewishness, nor does he suggest they should take even a single step away from it.

The closer Jesus comes to Jerusalem and the cross, the more fiercely he contends with people whose religion is of a certain twist. But the source of the conflict can’t be that they are “the Jews,” for so are they all!

A fuss erupts when he heals someone and, whoops, it’s the Sabbath: “You can’t do that!” His guys don’t do the washing ritual right before they eat. He lets a menstruating woman touch him; he touches people who are dead—both of which, unless he were to go through extensive purification ritual, are violations of the Bible itself! He treasures a sensual woman’s sensual way of giving thanks (she caresses his feet), and he tells the stunned self-righteous to lay off. And when they work on their reputation for generosity but let their old parents suffer, he puts it right in their faces.

What’s the common thread? Who are these people?

They are the religious minority who prefer being “right” to being compassionate. They despise him, finding him way too willing to bend the rules when someone’s suffering (they would figure sufferers had earned suffering by sloppy living). He finds them more religious than merciful. They plot his death for it.

It’s a lesson often missed. It isn’t about Jews and Christians, or anything of the sort, and it certainly isn’t about some supposed evil unique to Jewish people (believing that might be evidence of one’s own infection!). It’s simply that Jesus challenges the nature of religion, which ever threatens to turn us into heartless rule-keepers. To the extent that it does, we miss the means and end of his incarnation: mercy. The conflict that results arouses wrath—probably in every religion, but certainly in Christianity (the one I experience)—yet today.

From it comes a New Testament theme: outsiders often get it, insiders often don’t.

Nowhere is the theme more noticeable than in the appearance of astrologers (whom we label “magi” or “wise men”), pagans from some un-named place, who follow what they know and find what they seek. Utter outsiders, they worship and start for home filled with joy (which sort of stands the “how could God send everyone to hell who hasn’t prayed the sinner’s prayer” question on its head, doesn’t it?).

And meanwhile, the hyper-religious never quite see the enormous demonstration of God-the-merciful unfolding all around them.

A lesson for today?

(BTW, if this was helpful, you might enjoy theologian Stanley Hauerwas’s Conservatives of Jesus time were all against him) Now, the readings:

Epiphany of the Lord; January 6, 2008
Matthew 2:1-12;Ephesians 3:1-12;Isaiah 60:1-6;Psalm 72:1-7,10-14

Matthew 2:1-12
Scholars from the East
1-2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem village, Judah territory— this was during Herod’s kingship—a band of [astrologers] arrived in Jerusalem from the East. They asked around, “Where can we find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews? We observed a star in the eastern sky that signaled his birth. We’re on pilgrimage to worship him.”

3-4When word of their inquiry got to Herod, he was terrified—and not Herod alone, but most of Jerusalem as well. Herod lost no time. He gathered all the high priests and religion scholars in the city together and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”

5-6They told him, “Bethlehem, Judah territory. The prophet Micah wrote it plainly:

It’s you, Bethlehem, in Judah’s land,
no longer bringing up the rear.
From you will come the leader
who will shepherd-rule my people, my Israel.”

7-8Herod then arranged a secret meeting with the [astrologers] from the East. Pretending to be as devout as they were, he got them to tell him exactly when the birth-announcement star appeared. Then he told them the prophecy about Bethlehem, and said, “Go find this child. Leave no stone unturned. As soon as you find him, send word and I’ll join you at once in your worship.”

9-10Instructed by the king, they set off. Then the star appeared again, the same star they had seen in the eastern skies. It led them on until it hovered over the place of the child. They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time!

11They entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him. Then they opened their luggage and presented gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh.

12In a dream, they were warned not to report back to Herod. So they worked out another route, left the territory without being seen, and returned to their own country.

The Message Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Ephesians 3:1-12
The Secret Plan of God
1-3This is why I, Paul, am in jail for Christ, having taken up the cause of you outsiders, so-called. I take it that you’re familiar with the part I was given in God’s plan for including everybody. I got the inside story on this from God himself, as I just wrote you in brief.

4-6As you read over what I have written to you, you’ll be able to see for yourselves into the mystery of Christ. None of our ancestors understood this. Only in our time has it been made clear by God’s Spirit through his holy apostles and prophets of this new order. The mystery is that people who have never heard of God and those who have heard of him all their lives (what I’ve been calling outsiders and insiders) stand on the same ground before God. They get the same offer, same help, same promises in Christ Jesus. The Message is accessible and welcoming to everyone, across the board.

7-8This is my life work: helping people understand and respond to this Message. It came as a sheer gift to me, a real surprise, God handling all the details. When it came to presenting the Message to people who had no background in God’s way, I was the least qualified of any of the available Christians. God saw to it that I was equipped, but you can be sure that it had nothing to do with my natural abilities.

8-10And so here I am, preaching and writing about things that are way over my head, the inexhaustible riches and generosity of Christ. My task is to bring out in the open and make plain what God, who created all this in the first place, has been doing in secret and behind the scenes all along. Through followers of Jesus like yourselves gathered in churches, this extraordinary plan of God is becoming known and talked about even among the angels!

11-13All this is proceeding along lines planned all along by God and then executed in Christ Jesus. When we trust in him, we’re free to say whatever needs to be said, bold to go wherever we need to go. So don’t let my present trouble on your behalf get you down. Be proud!

The Message Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Isaiah 60:1-6
People Returning for the Reunion
1-7 “Get out of bed, Jerusalem! Wake up. Put your face in the sunlight.
God’s bright glory has risen for you.
The whole earth is wrapped in darkness,
all people sunk in deep darkness,
But God rises on you,
his sunrise glory breaks over you.
Nations will come to your light,
kings to your sunburst brightness.
Look up! Look around!
Watch as they gather, watch as they approach you:
Your sons coming from great distances,
your daughters carried by their nannies.
When you see them coming you’ll smile—big smiles!
Your heart will swell and, yes, burst!
All those people returning by sea for the reunion,
a rich harvest of exiles gathered in from the nations!
And then streams of camel caravans as far as the eye can see,
young camels of nomads in Midian and Ephah,
Pouring in from the south from Sheba,
loaded with gold and frankincense,
preaching the praises of God.
And yes, a great roundup
of flocks from the nomads in Kedar and Nebaioth,
Welcome gifts for worship at my altar
as I bathe my glorious Temple in splendor.

The Message Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Psalm 72
A Solomon Psalm
1-6 Give the gift of wise rule to the king, O God, the gift of just rule to the crown prince.
May he judge your people rightly,
be honorable to your meek and lowly.
Let the mountains give exuberant witness;
shape the hills with the contours of right living.
Please stand up for the poor,
help the children of the needy,
come down hard on the cruel tyrants.
Outlast the sun, outlive the moon—
age after age after age.
Be rainfall on cut grass,
earth-refreshing rain showers.[…]

10-14 Kings remote and legendary will pay homage,
kings rich and resplendent will turn over their wealth.
All kings will fall down and worship,
and godless nations sign up to serve him,
Because he rescues the poor at the first sign of need,
the destitute who have run out of luck.
He opens a place in his heart for the down-and-out,
he restores the wretched of the earth.
He frees them from tyranny and torture—
when they bleed, he bleeds;
when they die, he dies.

The Message Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Goodwill to you!

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Written by Monte

January 4, 2008 at 10:53 pm

3 Responses

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  1. I’ve said for some time “Beware the new Pharisees !” : of whatever observance they may promote.
    A pastor’s life is rough : caught between ignorance and false piety. How can we adequately value him who sees clearly the difference between the legalistic approach and the virtues of compassion and empathy?
    I saw this some time past : “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners…not promote religion.”
    I think the little things make the difference : the meaning of the word ‘Belief’ as Jesus taught it; the understanding of ‘Redeemer’ as showing how to ‘spend’ oneself; the childrens’ stories which played on the clarity of a fresh look innocent of preconceptions.. I ramble.
    I try to ‘appreciate’ writing like this in the archaic sense – and I do think it mirrors the inspirer.

    Monte Says: I’ve noticed, too, the on-the-street sense in which “faith” is used, being so different from what I mean, which is more like “trust.” Thanks for the comment!


    January 12, 2008 at 12:22 am

  2. It’s tragic that so many churches today have become the very people who criticized Jesus so much.

    Monte says: And that we’ve taught that the bad guys were bad guys for some other reason (eg, works v. faith, Jews v. Christians, etc). Thanks!


    January 10, 2008 at 9:52 am

  3. that’s quite beautiful Monte. Thank you.

    Monte Says: Thanks, friend – you’re more than welcome!


    January 5, 2008 at 5:14 am

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